Your Voice Is Unique

You've talked to the guy on the telephone several times. His deep, confident voice conjures up an image of someone tall, slim and distinguished. Surprise. When you meet him he's 5 feet 7 inches tall, paunchy and anything but distinguished. This isn't the voice you heard on the phone.

What gives each voice its unique, if sometimes deceptive, sound? Why do voices follow patterns -- for example, men's voices are typically deeper than women's? And how can we account for super-tenor Luciano Pavarotti, whose enormous size seems to belie his high notes?

A voice lesson

Q: How does your voice work?

A: It's kind of like twanging a rubber band, says C. Richard Stasney, M.D., an associate professor of otorhinolaryngology. Air is pushed up from the lungs into the larynx, where it passes through a pair of vocal cords. The cords, like a plucked rubber band, vibrate, creating sounds that are amplified and shaped in your mouth and nasal cavities.

Q: Why do men have lower voices than women?

A: The pitch of your voice has a lot to do with the size of your vocal cords, which are really flaps or folds of tissue, Dr. Stasney says. The thicker and longer the folds are, the lower the voice. On average, men's folds get as large as a quarter, while women's cords usually grow no larger than the size of a dime.

Q: Can you change the sound of your voice?

A: Changing your voice may help disguise your identity for playing a prank on a friend, but it's not a healthy strategy for the long run. Pushing your voice beyond its natural range and tone can permanently damage your vocal cords.

Consider the Broadway musical Annie. The range of notes in the title role is unnatural for many of the girls who've sung it, Dr. Stasney says. "It can create bumps on the vocal cords that can lead to a permanently hoarse voice."

Q: Why does your voice change or disappear when you have a cold?

A: Two separate processes are at work: Some colds swell the vocal cords, causing them to rub together. Colds also can dry up mucus, which is supposed to act as a vocal cord lubricant. "It's the WD-40 of the vocal folds," Dr. Stasney says. When you are sick, your body doesn't produce enough mucus and the cords rub together.

You can help your voice during a cold by taking the following steps:

  • Drink fluids to aid the flow of mucus. Avoid caffeine, which dehydrates the body.

  • Stay away from antihistamines and analgesics like aspirin and ibuprofen.

  • Try not to clear your throat so often. The action irritates the larynx, causing the vocal cords to swell.

  • Rest your voice by not speaking as much.

Q: Why don't people look the way they sound on the telephone?

A: The physical makeup of your mouth, nose and throat contributes to the distinctiveness of your voice. But voice, perhaps more than any other part of the body, is not tied to any other physical characteristics, Dr. Stasney says.

"Body stature doesn't correlate very well to the voice," says Dr. Stasney, which explains Pavarotti and the high notes and the guy on the phone who doesn't look the way he sounds. "I could show you pictures of 100 larynxes and we'd have no idea what the people looked like. You could have a bass-baritone and be 5 feet 2 inches."

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